After fighting savagely for two days in the tangled underbrush and heavily wooded battleground that became known as the Wilderness, Gen. Robert E. Lee and most of his officers believed that the Federals would do as they had always done: Stay where they were and lick their wounds.
When the fighting at the Wilderness drew to a close on Saturday, May 7, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant ordered Maj. Gen. George Meade to move his Army of the Potomac and race the Confederates to the nearest and best defensive positions at Spotsylvania Courthouse. This was farther to the south and on the road to Richmond.
During the night of May 7-8, Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps arrived at Spotsylvania and found Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson temporarily commanding. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia had beat them to it and set up defensive lines. Maj. Gen. Jubal Early assumed temporary command of the Third Corps as Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill was sick. Thus, two thirds of Gen. Lee’s army was commanded by new corps commanders in the midst of battle.
As the opposing troops battled it out at Spotsylvania Courthouse, in northwest Georgia Maj. Gen. William Sherman and his army moved out of Dalton after receiving orders from Gen. Grant to move against Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and march into the interior of Georgia. The march on the important rail center at Atlanta had begun.
Sherman’s forces of 100,000 men included Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, Maj. Gen. James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee and Maj. Gen. John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio. Opposing these three Union armies were some 60,000 Confederates of the Army of Tennessee under Gen. Johnston, and the fighting began almost from the onset of Gen. Sherman’s march toward Atlanta. On the peninsula between the James and York Rivers southeast of Richmond, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James was on the move, slowly, toward the Confederate capital city.
On Monday, May 9, there was no serious fighting in the lines around Spotsylvania Courthouse, but there were skirmishing and actions by sharpshooters. That morning, in an exposed position, Union Sixth Corps commander Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick told his staff that Confederate sharpshooters could not hit an elephant in the distance between the Union and Confederate lines.
He had almost completed the sentence when a Confederate sharpshooter, using a scoped Whitworth rifle more than 500 yards away, neatly drilled Gen. Sedgwick directly under his left eye, killing him instantly. While the fighting raged on, Gen. Grant sent Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, his cavalry commander, to keep the Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. James E.B. “Jeb” Stuart away from the Union lines and to disrupt Confederate railroad lines, and then join Gen. Butler on the peninsula for the drive on Richmond.
On May 10, three Union corps attacked Gen. Anderson’s men at Spotsylvania Courthouse around 6 p.m. Fighting was intense and severe, but the Confederates pushed the Federals back to their entrenchments. The next day, at Yellow Tavern, six miles north of Richmond, Gen. Sheridan’s cavalry fought Gen. Stuart’s cavalry.
In the encounter, the Union cavalry drove back the Southern troopers but could not press their advantage. The delay bought time for the Confederates in Richmond to strengthen the city’s defenses. In the fighting, Pvt. John Huff, of Armada, Mich., with the 5th Michigan Cavalry and a former sharpshooter, was dismounted; he was running toward the rear when he saw a mounted Confederate cavalry officer wearing a plumed hat.
Taking careful aim from about 10 yards away, Pvt. Huff fired his .44 Colt revolver and sent a bullet into the right side of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, directly under the rib cage. Mortally wounded, the Confederate cavalry commander was taken by a circuitous route to the home of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer, on Grace Street in Richmond, where he died of peritonitis at 7:30 p.m. the following evening (May 12). In the cavalry battle at Haw’s Shop on May 28, Pvt. Huff would be killed in the fighting.